What started out as a discussion of difficulty somehow morphed, by means of the notions of “aura” and “mystery,” into a discussion of (argh how we all hate the word) “spirituality” in poetry. As something of a Summa on the subject, I’ll take the liberty of quoting an email from the estimable gnostic-Catholic poet Peter O’Leary:
Poetry & religion. Or is it poetry & spirituality? Or is it the [Jesus] Freak Scene? (Insert your own Weberian exemplary type in the brackets.) Since I've been working on a book on this topic for the last four years, & since I'm specifically interested in the convergence in later 20th c. & contemporary American poetry of a kind of "Religious Turn," especially in the invocation of aspects of Christian belief & imagination in that realm (which have been, at least among so-called experimental writers, more or less verboten post-Eliot, in contrast to Buddhist professions of faith, which present the aura of authenticity & the everyday exotic, & to Jewish professions of faith, which can be cultural/ethnic as much as spiritual), I do, as you sensed, have something to say.
But not belaboredly! I think, culturally speaking, the thing to consider in imagining a current or contemporary religious poetry, is to recognize that with modernity in the West, religion has atomized in a way that it no longer represents overarching, or totalizing cultural concerns. It would be impossible for a poet to do a Divine Comedy & represent American Catholic culture, for instance. (Though this has not, & will not, stop me from trying.) When Dante wrote his poetry, its religiosity was inherent in its making. I think this is the thing Henry Adams describes so incredibly in Mont Saint Michel & Chartres, the idea that there was this unified cultural expression, whose apex was Aquinas, whose outward expression was Chartres, & whose mythos was the fantasy of the Lady/White Goddess/Grail/Beatrice. Religious poetry today no longer reflects a religious culture, like Dante's, but rather the private, peculiar, & traditional expressions of the person writing it. Now, this tradition can be either exoteric or esoteric. And the properties of that writing can be expressive of the tradition - lexical, liturgical, theosophical, for instance - or it can be writing that seeks to reproduce through its language the experience of religion - what Norman/Mike writing to Eric called the "aura." But in both kinds of religious poetry, as readers, we can have access to an oceanic feeling best called religious.
[Why is it that Sonic Youth’s “Catholic Block” just came up on the iPod?]
Boy do I like that final characterization, though – “an oceanic feeling best called religious.” But Eric does a nice job of steering the discussion away from that sticky religious-spiritual territory into something a trifle (but only a trifle) more sociological when he responds to Norman: “My sense, though, is that what we both like isn't a "spilled religion" so much as it is a nostalgia for...not religion, really, but a childhood faith in language, in magic, in the magic of language, and so on.” Mike Heller gets at something similar in his email to Eric: “the reason the word "spiritual" continually crops up is that it is hard to find any poetry which isn't possessed by some sort of hunger or longing, and so the word is a short hand for that otherwise unnameable or ineffable quality, which permeates your Auden or your Pound, your Mallarme to the nth and Oppen & Zukofsky, each in their way. And one might say that that quality is one of the things reserved by poetry for its way of being and speaking.”
[I must stipulate that I distrust the essentialism creeping in here. Bourdieu has a brilliant passage where he discusses how definers of what poetry “is” (the Russian Formalists in particular) work “to frame as a transhistoric essence what is a sort of historical quintessence, that is, the product of a long and slow work of historical alchemy which accompanies the process of autonomization of the fields of cultural production” (The Rules of Art 139). Has poetry always been involved with this “unnameable or ineffable” quality, or is this just another bibelot aboli that we’ve inherited from the Mallarmé estate sale? Is this one of the few damned things left after poetry has freed itself from its entanglements with the broader culture (freeing itself, in the process, from any audience outside of its own practitioners and their captive undergraduates)? NB: Strong hyperbole in the preceding sentences; add soda or tonic – or granum salis.]
"Hunger or longing." Hmmmm. I do indeed like that way of phrasing it, though I'm not sure that I agree with E. that what we're hungry or longing for is "the Old Speech," an "Orphic explanation of the earth" (Mallarmé again). Couldn't one posit that the hunger and longing we find in the poets we care about among our contemporaries and immediate forebears, and which we perhaps project backwards in our reading upon poets very distant from us indeed in linguistic and cultural circumstance (from Homer through, say, Dryden), is really just a reflection of our own damaged life, of the damaged existence into which our society – no matter how advantaged any one of us might comparatively be – forces us? Again, perhaps what I'm doing is no more than seeking a secular perspective on the auratic phenomenon: effing with the ineffable. But to get really vulgar, one might remember Marx's remark about religion as the "opium of the masses." He didn't mean that the masses were having some kind of 'shroom party when they went to church: Opium, first and foremost, is a painkiller.
But I’m tired, having already put in a full day’s darg towards the most looming of my looming deadlines. Tomorrow I want to respond more fully to Norman’s comment, and to Bob Archambeau’s throwing down of the Steiner gauntlet – which goes a good long way towards steering the discussion back towards them there issues of difficulty, and what’s pleasurable about it, anyway. (Bob – diff. #4 is “ontological” – perhaps the only phrase I remember quoting – and quite wrongheadedly, maybe – in my 1st book.)
Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism (U of Illinois P, 1999)
on the earbuds:
Sonic Youth, Sister